October 15 marks the beginning of the 2015-16 Florida stone crab season. An economically important fishery, not to mention one of the tastiest, commercial and recreational stone crab season runs through May 15, giving restaurants like Truluck’s and Cod and Capers plenty of claws to go around. While Palm Beach County is not a hotbed for stone crab fishermen, those southernmost outliers in Monroe County and our southwest neighbors in Collier County make up ground zero for the tasty crustaceans so much so that the Paradise Coast—Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City—has even dubbed itself the “Stone Crab Capital of the World.” And the facts back them up: According to the University of Florida’s Collier County IFAS Extension office (PDF), Florida accounts for “99 percent of all stone crab landings in the United States,” with Monroe and Collier Counties making up the two most prolific fisheries (a combined 52 percent of the 2010 harvest was collected by Monroe and Collier). A multimillion-dollar industry, in terms of economy, 2013-2014’s sub-two-million-pound catch was estimated at $27 million.
Last season, the stone crab landings rebounded—slightly—when compared with the dismal results from 2013-2014. Preliminary landings put 2014-2015’s statewide catch at more than two million pounds, though this is still nearly 30 percent lower than the historic average of three million pounds (official commercial landings have yet to be announced, these numbers were generated through Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Commercial Fisheries Landings Summaries data). There are a number factors contributing to another consecutive year of lower than average landings: overfishing, octopus, the two-claw harvest practice, and a lack of cold fronts.
Stone crab season has arrived. Make the most out of these tasty crustaceans with this handy Palm Beach guide to the claw.
The annual stone crab catch is worth millions—2014-2015’s estimate hovers around a $29 million dockside value, and that was a down season—meaning there is a pretty bustling fleet of boats dropping and pulling crab traps. Last season, about 1.1 million traps soaked in the water, luring crab to be plucked for food. That is a lot of traps vying for a finite resource. Additionally, lost traps, in which there are quite a few each year, leads to an unknown mortality rate of crabs each year, exacerbating the problem—each trap is supposed to be equipped with a slat of untreated pine or cypress that will biodegrade over time, allowing for crab to escape derelict traps; however, these are often faulty or take too long to break away, allowing for predation or starvation.
For the past few years, stone crab grounds, especially Lee County and north, have been hit hard by octopus, adversely affecting stone crab landings. Octopuses pose a special threat to stone crab, which have adapted the ability to bore through the crab shell, eating all that’s within the carapace, leaving the shell behind. Crabs in traps are especially vulnerable, offering little to no protection in terms of shelter—octopus can easily contort in and out of the traps.
One of the real Catch-22 of stone crab season is weather. When the water/weather temperatures dip, and the wind from cold fronts adds turbulence to water, stone crabs tend to get on the move in search of food. Conversely, the more sunny, temperate, tourist-loving balmy winter days Florida has, the range stone crab may traverse drops. So while those 70-degree January afternoons may be the envy of the rest of the continental U.S., attracting even more people to Florida’s shores, consequently driving up the demand for stone crab at seafood joints around the state, stone crabs are more difficult to catch and price per claw begins to skyrocket. Wholesale prices ranged from $9 per pound for medium claws, all the way up to $29 a pound for jumbo – a drastic swing and steep prices for restaurants working on thin margins. Which is why many of bigger restaurants like Truluck’s operates their own fisheries.
Located on the Isle of Capri in Southwest Florida, Truluck’s Capri Fisheries harvest crab daily from October through May, bringing fresh claws directly from the sea to the table, shipping to all 10 locations of the restaurant. Capri Fisheries’ fleet operates at full tilt during season, plying the waters daily, pulling, and laying traps, harvesting between 20 to 800 pounds per boat. Harvested crab claws are prepared the minute they hit the dock, with Turluck’s flash boiling the crab immediately, and then ship to the restaurants where the claws are served cracked with freshly drawn butter and a special remoulade mustard sauce.
As for the crab itself, there are two stone crab species that call Florida’s waters home: the Florida variety, Menippe mercenaria; and the Gulf species, Menippe adina. While the coloration appears slightly different—the Gulf variety appears a little darker/redder—they largely taste the same and interbreeding is common, creating hybrid zones.
The stone crab claw is sought after for its light, sweet meat, which, when served with freshly drawn butter and a squeeze of lemon will make a believer out of the most stubborn landlubber. A pretty fickle creature, the crab lives in estuaries, grass beds, reefs and rocky jetties. Stone crabs feed mainly on oysters (no wonder they are so delicious). When not dining on bivalves, stone crabs spend most of their time scurrying or burrowing away from predators..
When it comes to the fishery, stone crabs are unique in that they are somewhat sustainable. Only the claws are harvested; they pop off with some ease when twisted correctly, allowing fishermen to return the clawless crab back to the water as they move from trap to trap. It is legal to collect both claws if they are of legal size, as both will regenerate over time, but the FWC encourages fishermen to collect only one per crab. Regenerating claws takes up to 18 months and expends vast amount of energy, consequently slowing growth and reproduction. When declawed, stone crabs change their behavior, going from predator to scavenger, relying more on concealment than open foraging. Dining on seagrass and whatever carrion they can find, the life of a declawed stone crab is probably no picnic, with predation becoming a much larger threat—no claw for defense—though the stone crab’s primary predator, the octopus, is perfectly adept at dining on the crustacean regardless if it’s clawed or not.
As for stone crabs that have found their way into multiple fishing seasons of being declawed, there is a simple telltale sign. On the inside of the claw (facing the crab), there are lines resembling a fingerprint. If these are unbroken, it is the crab’s original claw; if they appear broken, it has been regenerated. This marking has allowed for some study on the impact of regenerated claws in the marketplace. According to the FWC’s 2013 Florida Stone Crab Species Account, “approximately 20% of the claws measured in fish houses were regenerated, providing evidence that crabs survive the de-clawing process” [PDF]. This adds credence to the recent findings by Ryan Gandy, a crustacean research scientist with FWC out of St. Petersburg, whose study into the warm water mortality found that stone crab have a higher mortality rate when declawed in warmer water, with roughly 60 percent of crabs with both claws removed dying in waters 70 to 82 degrees. For crabs with one claw removed, the rate drops substantially to 40 percent. With a declining fishery and landing numbers, FWC will be conducting a stock assessment of the fishery in 2016 in order to gain more insight into the diminishing numbers. Yet, while the percentage maybe low, the idea of a sustainable fishery does have some credence—after all it is not a 100 percent mortality rate equated to nearly every other fishery.
Now that we have stone crab is on the brain, we want to offer our go-to spot to grab fresh some fresh claws for home dining and a few recipes to try your hand whipping up a meal. Enjoy.
Bring the flavors of the Keys to the table with this tart recipe for a Key lime mustard dipping sauce.
For a tropical twist on a seaside favorite, try this mango-infused recipe on those stone crab claws.
Dig into this Honey Citrus Stone Crab Claws with Hearts of Palm Salad recipe.